Dear tourists of Amsterdam,
First of all, let me tell you that I love you. Or I mean, like most lovers, I love the idea of you. Let me explain.
I’m sort of a multicultural sentimentalist. For instance, whenever I see a white woman carrying a mocha colored baby, or a latino guy holding hands with an Asian girl, or a Mexican football player trying to speak Dutch in a post-match interview, my eyes well up with tears.
The crossing of racial or linguistic boundaries is, to me at least, one of the most moving phenomena in modern society. It takes courage to try and immerse yourself in another culture. Any adult person who has ever tried to learn a new language knows what a humiliating experience that can be.
It is natural and easy to stay within the familiar realms of friends, family and the country in which we were born, and it’s a remarkable feat that people everywhere get up and face the inevitable insecurity, strangeness, exhaustion and stomach flu that come with any form of travel. In fact, I think it’s the one quality that makes our species so unique. By going through these struggles we learn to empathize, and we grow. So I cry.
But I’m also, like most lovers, constantly disappointed in you. Again, this is not about who you are. I’m sure you’re very nice people. It’s because you don’t live up to your potential. You allow yourself to become part of a system that keeps you away from all the wonderful possibilities I just talked about.
What you get instead is a one-dimensional experience that has nothing to do with cultural exchange. This way we’ll never really get to know each other. You visit my city, take a few pictures and leave. It’s as if you’re waving at me from a car passing by, when what you could be having is a conversation. With me. And you should know that I’m a pretty good conversationalist.
Welcome to Holland, the world’s piano player
I get why you come to Amsterdam. It’s a charming city. The canals, the cheese, the Van Gogh Museum, the Anne Frank House. And then there’s the marihuana, eh? I mean I smoke it sometimes. It’s good stuff. But we all know: people who smoke too much weed become super boring.
When I travel, I’m more often annoyed than proud to hear people talk about their recent trip to my city. Amsterdam has become a travel cliché, because you, dear tourists, take the easy route. You cling together in the Red Light District and fool yourselves into thinking this is Amsterdam. In fact, we Amsterdammers rarely go there: it’s impossible to ride your bike in those narrow streets and if we want to see naked ladies, we surf the Internet like everyone else.
You take selfies with your ridiculous sticks in front of the Iamsterdam-sign, without stopping to wonder what that sign is even supposed to mean. I amsterdam? I am sterdam? What is a ‘sterdam’? A very sturdy dam? Are you a dam? Or is it a verb, so you can also say ‘I London’ or ‘I St. Petersburg’? That’s just stupid. And you’re not.
You know, GPS-based research by the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad showed that Amsterdam tourists all take the same routes and stray only rarely. There’s hardly any exploration of, or engagement with, the non-touristy parts of the culture. All you see is a propped-up replica of the city, like the wax statues at Madam Tussaud’s. It’s a one-sided, pre-packaged experience that has nothing to do with actually visiting my country. This isn’t entirely your fault, of course. Now that you’ve turned into zombies, the question is: who created the virus?
We are the world champion of opportunism: we rarely take a moral standpoint and always go for peace and stability, just to avoid getting punched in the face
To answer that, you should know a few things. Holland has always been a teeny-tiny country. We’re like the kid in your class who had developmental issues and had to take growth hormones to keep up. This kid would never win a fight. We have a saying here: ‘He who isn’t strong, should be smart.’ So it’s only natural that we have become a very resourceful country. For centuries we have survived, against all odds, by getting very good at commerce and sucking up to bigger countries. We are the world champion of opportunism: we rarely take a moral standpoint and always go for peace and stability, just to avoid getting punched in the face; we’d rather try and sell you some tulips instead.
That’s why we were so ‘tolerant’ for many centuries and tried to stay neutral during the two World Wars. Maybe you’ve seen the famous video of the Dutch colonel Karremans (who was supposed to protect Srebrenica during the Balkan War), as he faced the angry macho Serbian commander Mladic. The leader of our armed forces tried to stay reasonable and mumbled: ‘I always say: ‘I’m the piano player. Don’t shoot the piano player’.’ That could be our national motto: ‘Welcome to Holland, the world’s piano player.’ We provide the music, but we prefer staying in the background.
This dream that we’re living could end any second
Not only is Holland very small, it is also a swamp. Great swaths of our country are below sea level. We’ve drained the water very ingeniously over the centuries, and locked it behind our famous sturdy dams, but it’s still plotting revenge. This adds to our opportunistic mentality. To quote our great author W.F. Hermans: ‘If a group of people spends centuries living on a piece of land that actually belongs to fish, then these people will develop a philosophy deprived of anything human! A philosophy focused exclusively on self-preservation! A worldview whose only goal is to avoid feeling wet! They won’t have any room for the larger problems.’
So now you understand us. We’re surrounded by Germany, France, England, and a whole lot of water. Combine that with the Northern European fetish for control and you understand why everything is so neat and orderly here. We need to be alert and make a lot of money to protect ourselves, because this dream that we’re living could end any second.
This is why you’re being streamlined into this very narrow view of our country: the mayor of Amsterdam and his people don’t actually want you here. That’s why we turn you into zombies. We want you to walk a designated path, hand over your money, take pictures and leave us alone. We want to control your experience, but we don’t want to connect with you as human beings. God no. What would be in it for us, economically or diplomatically? Here’s another Dutch saying: ‘Both visitors and fish stay fresh for three days.’ Mind you, that’s our hospitality guide for those who are close to us: nice that you’re here, my sister with whom I shared my childhood, but please don’t stay longer than a weekend. Imagine how we think of you, you weird-looking strangers.
So you become human filling. Like extras on a movie set, you don’t have personalities, you’re just part of the mass that’s crowding our streets. And that’s such a waste. I mean, I like people. It’s always nice to talk to a stranger at a party or on the street, once the initial awkwardness has passed. But now I just bump into your stoned bodies or try to get to a friend’s house while you are blocking the road, and it’s so easy to hate you.
I know what you’re thinking: but everybody’s so nice here! Indeed, visitors are always raving about our English language skills – even when they’re not high on our famous XTC. And yes, I’m proud of the fact that Dutch cinemas don’t dub their movies, as they do in more chauvinistic countries like Italy or Turkey, enabling us to learn the English language faster.
But I don’t think we speak English with you because we want to welcome you. I think it’s the opposite: it’s because we want to keep you at bay, like the water that surrounds us. We don’t want you to try and speak our language, because we don’t want you to stay. It’s crowded enough already. We do, however, want your money. So we suck up to you, make you feel at home, but only within your designated tourist bubble. We don’t encourage you to say simple things like ‘Dank je wel’ or ‘Dag!,’ while even the Americans shout ‘Merci’ and ‘Bonjour’ at their Parisian hosts. We don’t want you to make the effort.
We don’t want you to try and speak our language, because we don’t want you to stay. It’s crowded enough already
In this tourist bubble of yours, you’re raised like an only child who gets all the attention from his parents. It feels nice, but actually you’re not fully appreciated for who you are. You become arrogant and lazy, thinking you own Amsterdam and its people, when actually one of the great lessons that travelling has to teach is humility. When you try to utter a few words in a strange language or get lost in a new environment, you realize how insignificant you and your whole identity really are – and paradoxically, that realization makes you a better person.
Take your cycling skills, for example. I know Americans compare something that’s easy to ‘riding a bicycle,’ but even things that are easy to learn come with different levels of skill. Like swimming. Or hotdog eating. Anyone can eat a hotdog, but only Joey Chestnut can eat 69 hotdogs in ten minutes. Dutch people basically come cycling out of the uterus at birth, on a tiny baby bike, so we’re really good at it. Way better than you, especially in our city. This would be all right, only if you realized how bad you are and adopted a more humble cycling style. Instead you are in our way, swaying like maniacs, thinking we’re all equals here. I’m sorry, but we’re not. Imagine an amateur guitarist, obliviously trying to jam along with Prince; that’s you, on the bike.
The Red Light District isn’t Amsterdam
5.3 million people visited Amsterdam last year, compared to 3.4 million in 2000. The municipal focus on attracting tourists really surprises me. As you may know, our immigration policy has hardened severely over the years. Many asylum seekers got so frustrated with the bureaucratic hurdles they kept having to face that they committed suicide. An Iranian set himself on fire in Dam Square in 2011 – but you won’t see a monument dedicated to him. Those who aren’t fleeing war or famine have a hard time getting in, too. My sister-in-law has a Colombian boyfriend. He’s allowed to live with her, but only for as long as she is able to financially support the both of them. If she loses her job (not that uncommon nowadays), he’ll have to be on a plane back home before the month is over. Public opinion is in favor of our neoconservative policy makers: whenever a group of African immigrants drowns in the Mediterranean, many Dutch citizens can’t help but express their satisfaction with this ‘solution.’ The recent national debate about the tradition of ‘Black Pete’ opened a very big can of very racist worms.
Also, your superficial presence is keeping those who actually want to build a life here from doing so. There are lots of hotels and Airbnb apartments in Amsterdam, but students are unable to find rooms, or they pay ridiculous prices for rooms the size of toilets.
Now you understand my ambivalence. How can a country be so welcoming to millions of tourists and yet so unwelcoming to other visitors at the same time? The truth is that we’re not actually that welcoming to anyone.
There are those who think we should attract more sophisticated tourists. That doesn’t make sense to me at all. All foreigners, when visiting another country, are inherently stupid
There are those, including the director of the Rijksmuseum, who think we should attract more sophisticated tourists. That doesn’t make sense to me at all. All foreigners, when visiting another country, are inherently stupid. They can’t help it: they don’t understand anything. I’m that way when I’m abroad: I stare for hours at subway maps, my mouth half open, like a complete idiot. What that means is that you’re easy to nudge, or even to fool: if someone tells you to go somewhere, then that’s where you go. Every city gets the tourists it deserves.
I’m here to tell you that there is another way. I believe you can do so much better. The Red Light District isn’t Amsterdam (although it’s actually getting nicer there – even the prostitutes aren’t immune from gentrification) and we don’t smoke weed and speak English all day. Please go to one of the neighborhoods outside of the city center. Talk to us. We may be shy at first, but secretly we love to talk and our national history has actually made us a very curious and openminded people. As soon as we’re sure you’re not a German who wants to kill us, or a flood in human disguise, we’ll probably have a nice conversation with you. Maybe we’ll even teach you some Dutch swear words. And you could teach us some things about your strange culture, too.
There will be real interaction, instead of just checking off tourist boxes. And if we keep that up, maybe our government will realize that they can’t control you, so they’ll just tear down the Iamsterdam-signs and open the borders so that all races can have one giant United Colors of Benetton orgy on Dam Square. And me? I will be looking at it all, bawling my eyes out.
With lots of love,
Your potential friend,
Dit artikel werd geschreven door gastcorrespondent Rutger Lemm. Omdat het behalve een Nederlands ook een Engels publiek aanspreekt hebben we het - bij wijze van uitzondering - in het Engels gepubliceerd.